NATURE NOTES:
The Roadrunner: Icon of the Southwest, and Ultimate Desert Survivor

By Andrew Stuart

For this episode, Nature Notes is teaming up with “West Texas Wonders” – a reporting series where listeners ask questions and Marfa Public Radio finds answers.

This question comes from Austin listener Heather Holland. Born in Houston, raised in Colorado, she was drawn to Big Bend for a Texas mountain experience, and she’s become a frequent visitor. 

Holland served in the military, in deserts overseas. But in Big Bend she met a creature she hadn’t in those deserts.

“To just see this cute little bird running across the road was a delight,” Holland said. “I realized how much I didn’t know about roadrunners – if they’re migrating for diet, if they are only in the southern part of Texas. Maybe they’re endangered – what’s their story? The second question is, what do the locals think of them? Are they a common nuisance, or are they nearly mythical?”

Roadrunners are icons and ambassadors of the Southwest, largely due to a certain cartoon. Yet there’s been relatively little research into these birds.

Dr. Martha Maxon wrote the book – The Real Roadrunner, published in 2005. It draws from pionerring fieldwork she conducted in Big Bend National Park in the 70s.

“It was just an amazing experience to be able to study them,” Maxon said, “and I’m happy to share everything I know about them – there’s more to learn.”

Roadrunners are ground-dwellers like pheasants and quail, but they’re members of the cuckoo family. They’re weaker flyers than quail – but what they have is speed. They can run up to 25 mph.

And they’re no snowbirds. They live year-round, their entire lives, within discreet home ranges, from 20 to 200 acres in size. 

During three summers, Maxon observed the mating and nesting behavior of roadrunners near Rio Grande Village and Panther Junction. What she saw was surprising, even dazzling.

The birds get an early start. By late February, the male roadrunner is singing his courtship song – a mournful, descending series of “coos” that’s often mistaken for a dove’s cry. The female takes her time responding to these pining calls. 

Eventually, she may allow him to approach – and the performance begins. The male flaps his wings, making a loud popping noise. He turns his back to the female – and runs away, raising his tail to flash the white spots on its underside.

If the female’s interest is sustained, the male will draw nearer – typically with a stick, or other nest-building material, in his mouth. 

“Either she walks away – not interested, it’s totally up to her – or she kind of turns sideways to him,” Maxon said, “and flicks her tail, and then she falls down on the ground and he jumps on her and they mate.” 

After mating, she takes the stick. To conclude the ritual, the birds stand side-by-side, and jerk their tails and heads upwards, striking matching poses.

It’s the beginning of bonding that will continue till fall. 

To avoid predators, the pair chooses a high spot for nesting – a mesquite, a yucca, an oil derrick. Chollas, with their thorny limbs, provide added safety, and are a favored spot.  

They work quickly, building the nest in one or two days. The male delivers materials; the female builds.

The birds take shifts in incubating the eggs, and, later, guarding and warming the nestlings. The male always takes the night shift. He raises his body temperature against the night chill. It’s a physical strain – and the night shift itself is risky. It’s in darkness that a fox, bobcat or ringtail will prey on a roadrunner and its eggs.

The couple continues to mate throughout the season – though the male’s offerings change.

“He starts to bring lizards usually,” Maxon said. “I’ve seen him bring little mice. Or even just bits of food he finds around – they’re carrion eaters, too. Mainly its lizards, and he gives that to her after mating. She reaches up and grabs it from him.”

They can raise up to three nests a season. Data suggests roadrunners likely mate for life.

What’s on the menu for a roadrunner? Almost anything. Insects are the mainstay. But lizards, rodents and other birds are fair game. They beat their verterbrate prey against stones – pulverizing the bones, so the meal goes down smoothly.

And they’re undaunted by creepy-crawlies. Roadrunners can eat copious quantities of venomous creatures – scorpions, tarantulas, wasps and bees.

They won’t even stand down from a rattlesnake. In the combat, roadrunners are often victorious. They use their wings like a bullfighter’s cape – luring the snake, leaping aside to avoid its strike, then pecking at the snake’s head.

Destruction wrought to the earth by human beings has decimated birds. A sweeping recent study found that bird populations in the U.S. and Canada have declined by a third since 1970. Yet while most species are faltering, roadrunners have expanded their range.

The desert, from California to West Texas, remains their stronghold. But in the last century, they’ve expanded east and north, across all of Texas, into Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri.

They need open spaces to hunt – and shrubs or trees to nest. Changes that have disrupted other birds – the transformation of prairies into mesquite shrublands, the cutting of eastern forests – have opened opportunities for roadrunners.

“That’s such a fascinating thing,” Maxon said, “that they’ve been able to expand and do well when many other species are not, and I think we have a lot to learn from them about that, particularly now that we’re into climate change.”

As to Holland’s last question – what desert locals think of roadrunners – Maxon takes that on in her book as well. In Mexico, she found a widespread appreciation for the bird. It’s referred to affectionately as paisano – “countryman” – and admired for its bravery. Roasted roadrunner is thought to have curative powers. In Arizona, where she lives now, Maxon has found hostility – roadrunners are blamed for eating the beloved Gambel’s quail. 

But in South Texas, where Maxon grew up, and in West Texas, locals are most likely to smile at the sight of a roadrunner – perhaps feeling kinship with this ultimate desert survivor.

Question-asker Heather Holland said roadrunners are more complex, and quirkier, than she expected.

“I really though the mating dance thing was hilarious,” she said. “I think there’s something interesting about that interaction – the way all different species go about it, to get their mate attracted. I would say they have a lot more character, which I didn’t know.”

Sounds of the roadrunner’s call in this piece are courtesy of the the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,
http://www.MacaulayLibrary.org